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Organizing Research for Arts and Humanities Papers and Theses: What are Scholarly and Non-Scholarly Sources

What is a Scholarly Source

Both scholarly and non-scholarly materials have a place in arts and humanities research. Their use, and even their definition, depends on the context of the research project.

Books, conference publications, and academic journal articles, regardless of whether they are print-based or electronic, are common types of scholarly materials, which share the following characteristics:

  • The authors are scholars or researchers with known affiliations and educational/research credentials
  • The authors cite other sources, be they primary or secondary. Many scholarly publications include citations to other sources and bibliographies
  • The language used is either academic or complex, and may include disciplinary or theoretical lingo
  • The publisher is a scholarly press that practices editorial review to ensure that content and context adhere to the expected research parameters
  • The intended audience is composed of researchers, scholars, academics, and other informed or specialized readership.

Scholarly and academic journals, which are periodic publications that contain articles, have additional characteristics, such as:

  • An editorial process that is peer reviewed or refereed
  • They publish long articles (essays that are ordinarily at least 10 pages), which may also inlcude an abstract. Scholarly journals often publish essay-length scholarly book reviews, which include citations to other sources
  • Scholarly journals are published relatively infrequently, usually quarterly (once every 3 months), semi-annually (twice a year), or annually (once a year).

Use the points above to evaluate the scholarly nature of internet sites. It helps if the site's URL ends in .edu.

So far, so good.

But things are not always clear cut, and here are some complexities to keep in mind:

  • Scholarly materials in art, architecture, theater, cinema, and related fields often include images
  • Images may constitute a large portion of such publications, with text used to illustrate, contextualize, critique, or explicate the visual component
  • There may be fewer citations to other sources, and the bibliographies may be shorter
  • The author may be a creative practitioner, such as, for example, an architect or a playwright
  • The author may be a multi-disciplinary intellectual of a transnational stature, who does not rely on the commonly acceptable scholarly apparatus. For example, works by Roland Barthes, which lack footnotes or bibliographies, are considered scholarly. An essay by Jean Baudrillard about Disneyworld, which appeared in the French daily newspaper Liberation, may also be considered scholarly, given the stature of the author and his importance in the development of a particular theoretical analysis of popular culture.

What is a Non-Scholarly Source

Non-scholarly materials usually consiste of, but are not limited to:

  • News sources, newspapers, and materials that are time-based and get updated frequently
  • Sources that are primarily journalistic
  • Sources written for a broad readership
  • Sources that are advocacy or opinion-based. Keep in mind that opinion-based articles, scholarly news, and letters to the editor get published in scholarly journals alongside scholarly articles.
  • Sources that lack references to other sources
  • Data and statistical publications and compilations
  • Primary sources
  • Trade and professional sources
  • Reviews of books, movies, plays, or gallery and art shows, that are not essay-length and that do not inlcude a bibliographic context

Non-scholarly materials are legitimate sources for research in the arts and humanities, and should be used in context, just as scholarly sources must be used in context. For example, if you are researching something that happened very recently, you will have to, by necessity, use non-scholarly sources. It takes time for scholarship to be written, reviewed by peers, and published. In addition, there is no guarantee that your particular topic is of interest to other scholars. In such cases, look for scholarly materials in related areas that can provide a critical framework for you to use in analyzing your topic.